James Fredrick is a multimedia journalist based in Mexico City and covers migration, crime, politics and sports.
MEXICO CITY — I heard a familiar story on a recent trip to the southern border.
“There’s been harassment against my fellow Guatemalans, asking them if they’re citizens, demanding their papers, it’s an all-out persecution,” Hector Sipac, a Guatemalan consul, told me.
But we weren’t in the United States. We were in Tapachula, on Mexico’s southern border, where Sipac is based. In the age of President Trump’s xenophobia, Mexico has quietly aligned itself with the American president against migrants.
Publicly, Mexico sure sounds like it’s battling Trump. The foreign affairs ministry characterized Trump’s recent “animals” comment as “absolutely unacceptable” and “contrary to human rights.”
But as an American living in Mexico, I’ve seen my adopted country follow in the footsteps of my home country in its treatment of migrants. In this regard, southern Mexico feels eerily similar to the southern United States.
Migrants and asylum seekers are being actively hunted and arbitrarily detained. A recent lawsuit filed by a refugee shelter claims Tapachula’s municipal police are systemically harassing and extorting Central American asylum seekers. Sipac, the Guatemalan consul, said migrants who have been victims of crimes rarely report them, fearing any interaction with the authorities will lead to deportation.
Business chambers in Tapachula are blaming immigrants for rising crime. One business leader said that “80 percent of crimes in the area are being committed by immigrants.” When I asked where I could see that data, he told me to ask the police. The local police didn’t have any such data. Despite no quantitative evidence, the conflation of immigrants with crime is pervasive in southern Mexico.
Migrants are increasingly exploited for their work in the south. A researcher studying labor in sugar cane fields called it “work devouring the lives of migrants,” taking advantage of undocumented workers by paying next to nothing and providing no services. In Tapachula, a Honduran migrant told me he had been paid 50 pesos (about $2.50) for each brutal 14-hour day of chopping sugar cane.
Mexico’s immigration enforcement mirrors its neighbor to the north: Militarized, aggressive persecution pushing migrants further into the dangerous shadows of trafficking and traveling on foot. The National Migration Institute recruits local, state and federal police, plus the army, marines, and gendarmes to hunt people fleeing poverty, political persecution, gender violence and brutal street gangs. And it’s working: Nearly half of the 93,000 migrants detained in Mexico in 2017 did not make it past southernmost Chiapas state.
Since Mexico launched its Southern Border Plan in 2014 — an opaque, U.S.-funded strategy institutionalizing migration enforcement — more than half a million Central Americans have been shipped back to their homes. That’s in part because it takes, on average, just 36 hours to deport a Central American from Mexico, though more than 80 percent of them say they fear returning home.
Migrant activists and their shelters are regularly attacked and threatened in Mexico. Seven of 10 migrants suffer violence from organized crime or state forces, according to Doctors Without Borders, and 3 of 10 women report being the victim of some form of sexual violence. Crimes against migrants are seldom solved, if investigated at all.
The motivation for Mexico’s migration crackdown is clear: gain favor in the United States by doing its dirty work. Cooperating is easier than resisting. It’s the same logic behind the drug war, a decade of collaboration with the United States that has left hundreds of thousands of dead and disappeared, and an all-time high murder rate.
It is clear Mexico gains little from this dirty work, even when an amicable president such as Barack Obama is in office. But cooperation with Trump — whose entire stint as candidate and president has been based on racism against Mexicans — highlights the Mexican government’s moral emptiness on migration.
But change could be around the corner. On July 1, Mexicans will elect a new president. While immigration discussions here tend to focus on Mexicans in the United States rather than immigrants in Mexico, during a presidential debate on May 20, voter Teresa Mercado blistered the four presidential candidates with this question:
“It’s outrageous the way migrants who travel through Mexico are treated. How would you help migrants who pass through Mexico so that we can have the moral authority to ask the same for Mexican migrants in the U.S.?”
Here’s a start to address Mercado’s concerns: Demilitarize immigration enforcement and bring migrants out of the shadows; double the funding to assist refugees; increase funding for the special prosecutor on crimes against migrants (which currently has an annual budget of $50,000); finance and institutionalize Mexico’s robust network of nonprofit migrant shelters; and welcome migrants and refugees with open arms.
All four presidential candidates expressed sympathy with migrants, some quite earnestly and elegantly. But not one of them presented material changes to Mexico’s immigration policy or law. Mercado had the most insightful comment on the issue: Mexico’s criticisms of Trump ring hollow as long as migrants here suffer like they do.